After losing starting guards, Michigan rediscovered its ball screen offense

Dylan Burkhardt
on

It took a while, but over the last month of the season Michigan finally rediscovered its ball screen offense. Even without the two players it expected to carry the load in 2014-15.

For an array of reasons, Michigan’s ball screen game – which had been among the best in the country over the last three seasons – never got into gear early on this season. Caris LeVert struggled to knock down off the dribble mid-range jumpers and Derrick Walton’s poor finishing at the rim was magnified when a foot injury derailed his season in the fifth game of the year.

Michigan scored just .867 points per possession on pick and roll possessions over the first 20 games of the season. The offense was sputtering and the losses piled up quickly. Michigan’s pick and roll offense was ranked just ninth in the Big Ten at that point. News that Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton – the team’s two top creators on paper – would be sidelined indefinitely only added insult to injury.

Life hasn’t really been any easier without LeVert and Walton, Michigan is just 4-8 without LeVert, but the dire circumstances provided an opportunity for Spike Albrecht, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Zak Irvin to improve in a hurry.

Since that trio took over the reins and started running Michigan’s offense, the Wolverines have boasted the conference’s second best ball screen offense.

Here’s a look at how Michigan’s ball screen efficiency improved over the last ten games, as compared to the rest of the conference’s final results.

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Albrecht, Irvin and Abdur-Rahkman have accounted for 86% of Michigan’s ball screen offense, excluding LeVert and Walton. Freshmen wings Kam Chatman and Aubrey Dawkins combined to create 12 points on 30 ball screen possessions this year.

Plotting Michigan’s ball screen offense over the last four years compared to the two segments of this season illustrates Michigan’s early struggles and surprising improvement.

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While Albrecht, Irvin, and Abdur-Rahkman didn’t have the same volume as some of the elite pick and roll players in the conference – partially because their heavy usage came only in the final third of the season — they also graded out very well compared to the rest of the league. Among players with at least 50 ball screen possessions (including passes), only Traevon Jackson (who was the only player more efficient that Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman).

All three of Michigan’s ‘new backcourt’ were significantly more efficient in the pick-and-roll game than the players whose roles they replaced, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton.

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Spike Albrecht

John Beilein commented a few weeks ago that Spike Albrecht was never recruited to be a guy that you just hand the ball to and let him run ball screens, but he’s doing a pretty good job of it.

Albrecht, unlike the other two guards on this list, still has a pass-heavy split. 60% of his ball screens are passes and 40% are shots, but as the season has progressed he’s been more aggressive looking for his own offense.

Albrecht shoots 40% on above the break threes and he’s been consistent with his jumper off the dribble over the last month.

Zak Irvin

We’ve seen an incredible growth in Zak Irvin’s game. He’s ran 87 ball screens this year and created 85 points. He still almost always dribbles off the pick and attempts an off the dribble jump shot, but he’s added the ability to pass the ball into his repertoire.

In first two months of the season, Irvin had made just five passes in the pick and roll game. In the last two months, he’s made 28. Irvin’s 16 pick-and-roll assists this season aren’t necessarily setting the world on fire, but they are an important first step in his development. Remember, this is the same player who recorded just 13 assists total in his freshman season.

At the season’s mid-way point, Irvin looked like a player that was stuck in neutral. He was taking bad shots, missing open ones and allowing that to effect his play on both ends. A couple months later, and the promise is clear. Irvin is sticking mid-range jumpers, making reads and starting to find himself in the offense.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman

Do you think opposing defenses are overplaying Abdur-Rahkman to shoot? Michigan is scoring 1.74 points per possession when Abdur-Rahkman passes out of the ball screen, but he’s found the roll man just twice. Teams are selling out to stop the 6-foot-3 freshman’s drive and his ability to improve in the passing game will be critical next season.

Abdur-Rahkman has passed to the roll man just twice this season, both resulting in scores. Compared to the 31 possessions he kept the ball and 17 he kicked the ball out to spot-up shooters, he’s a very easy scout.

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The Future

John Beilein and his staff have found promise in Irvin, Albrecht and Abdur-Rahkman, but the other glaring issue is figuring out why Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton struggled in the ball screen game this season.

Michigan’s new creators might never be its primary offensive creators in the future, but they skillset they’ve developed will be invaluable.

Albrecht will probably never play the same kind of minutes again in his career – he’s averaging 38.4 per game over the last ten games – but his game has matured to the point where he’ll be an important weapon for the Wolverines next season. Albrecht can stick threes off the ball screen, finish his fair share of circus shots at the rim and he’s learned to distribute the ball more efficiently from the pick and roll action. He’ll always be something of a weakness defensively, but throwing out a lineup of shooters like Dawkins, Irvin and Robinson along with Albrecht next season could make for a potent offensive look.

Abdur-Rahkman and Irvin’s improvements are potentially more significant for the Wolverines’ future. A month ago I was worried that Irvin’s game might have plateaued, but the light appears to finally be clicking. If Caris LeVert opts to enter the NBA Draft, it is very possible that Irvin and Abdur-Rahkman could take on similar, but maybe not nearly as significant, roles next season.

Pick and roll statistics via Synergy Sports

  • eddieben

    Nice analysis. Seems to me that a large part of the improvement on the PnR play over the course of the season has just as much to do with the big men setting better screens as the development of the guards. The last half of the season saw a lot more Beilfelt as well as Doyle who had half a season under his belt.

    • Andrew

      Caris has always looked like a much better iso player than a PnR player. I’m not sure that will ever change. Even if he comes back. He uses hesitation dribbles to free himself rather than turning the corner with speed. And Walton needs to work on the short jumper and floater because he’s too short to finish at the rim all the time even when healthy. I think Rahk has the most potential as a PnR player, but I love what Spike has done, and I’d be fine if he shot even more above the break if guys go under the screen and Irvin has definitely improved.

      I think Michigan will be much better next year, but I am curious if everyone comes back how the pieces and distribution will work out.

      • Definitely think that Caris is better on the ISO, but was really disappointed with how he distributed the ball this year. Think he has another level there and not really sure what it was early (trust, uncertainty, etc.)

        • mikey_mac

          This has really been an entirely lost year for Caris. Remember, the offseason improvement time wasn’t there for him, with the original foot injury. He probably practiced quite a bit less with his new teammates than anyone else in the rotation.

  • Champswest

    Good read. It has been fun to watch the growth of players over the course of their careers. We tend to write off players if we don’t see them “getting it” early on, but some develop later or slower than others. Irvin grew in the last month of his sophomore year and will keep getting better. Look at what Max is doing as a senior. I am already anxious for next year to see what we have in Wilson and Robinson and where Doyle, Donnal, Chatman and others are in their progression.

  • Mattski

    Good stuff. I just thought that Walton’s first step–and hence his explosiveness–were so limited, and attributed that to his toe. Was he struggling a lot before the injury?

    Irvin look so automatic on those short pops the other day. . .

  • MAZS

    It strikes me that we have been utilizing Zak as the screener more often as the season evolved and more often they we tended to use a wing to screen in the past. Does the data back this up or refute it? The wing screen creates more pick-and-pop opportunities. Its another reason I enjoy Beilein’s offensive schemes so much.

  • mikey_mac

    This is great stuff. Love seeing the breakdowns of each player’s PNR tendencies. The thing I really want to see is the bigs’ PNR efficiencies, both offensive and defensive. JB’s hard hedge defensively has never been my fav, but Morgan and McGary recently were able to play it well. This year’s team, not so much, at least to my eye.

  • jakelam2116

    This shows again that the large majority of Beilein players ultimately, come March, have made great strides. Irvin’s improvement and passing have been especially fun to watch. Great growth.

  • Corperryale

    I expect MAAR will become a much better passer. So far he’s been effective in the lane but I think he has shown some adaptability as opponents have adjusted to stop him (not just off screens… thinking of that kick-out to Chatman against Rugters). His poster dunk on Layman’s head showed a level of athleticism only matched (exceeded) by Dawkins, so that’s also encouraging.

  • mstein23

    Great stuff. Interested to see how Caris and Derrick’s PNR efficiency compares to last season.